To keep up with the growing demand for high-speed Internet, cities must take immediate steps to insure they are both relevant and competitive now, and in the future. A recent webinar, titled Local Broadband Initiatives: Finding a Model that Works for You, hosted by the National League of Cities, looked at different ways local governments can upgrade internet infrastructures.

Jim Baller, president of the Baller Herbst Law Group, based in Washington D.C., spoke about the importance of broadband connectivity, and the importance of local governments' finding the right model to serve community needs. Emphasizing that no two cities’ projects look alike, Baller said, “There are no such things as ‘cookbook’ broadband projects.”

Baller compared broadband infrastructure projects to communities preparing themselves for electricity 100 years ago. Broadband connectivity is the “electricity of this century,” he said. In order to understand the best way to serve a community, a local government must understand the “primary drivers” of broadband connectivity. According to Baller these drivers include:

  • Economic development and job creation,
  • Educational and occupational opportunity,
  • Access to affordable, modern health care,
  • Local, regional and national competitiveness,
  • Public safety and homeland security,
  • Energy security and cost savings,
  • Environmental protection,
  • Control of own destiny and
  • Quality of life.

Baller went on to stress the importance of an area’s legal infrastructure, local needs and conditions and “local project champions,” or local leaders invested in the project, for a broadband connectivity project’s success. 

Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology and Energy, and president of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors in Washington D.C., spoke in detail on the importance of installing fiber optic cable specifically, and the two models by which a city or town can bring this service to its constituents. 

Installing fiber optic cable, or glass cables, which transfer information via light waves is the best way a community can tap into broadband speeds, in Hovis’ opinion. Fiber optics are infinitely upgradeable, with no potential for becoming obsolete. “This is the best investment in the long run,” Hovis said.

Cities that build, operate and maintain networks can provide high-speed Internet more affordably than through third party leasing, said Hovis.

Hovis went on to say there are “an enormity of ways these projects can be spearheaded,” but narrowed them down to two general models. These models are either “institutional” or “public facing.”

Under the institutional model, government buildings are wired first with broadband capacity cables and then rely on third-party vendors to bring the connections to the public. Hovis said this model is low risk, and its strength is derived from competition in the private sector. Institutional models have been successful in “hundreds of projects around the country,” according to Hovis, and are relatively low in cost to construct and operate.

The second, more ambitious Public Facing model, involves government agencies laying all the fiber necessary to bring broadband to homes and businesses. These high-risk projects' success metrics are rarely measured in dollar signs, according to Hovis, and have more to do with the quality of life in a community.

Hovis urged community leaders to “build whenever you can.” She recommended laying cable or conduit whenever an appropriate construction project broke ground.

Deborah Acosta, chief innovation officer for San Leandro, Calif., gave a detailed case study of her city’s efforts to bring broadband to its businesses and people.

Acosta referred to high-speed fiber optics as a “game changer.” Her city, using an institutional model, recently installed 11 miles of 100 gigabit-per-second-capable fiber, and plans to install 11 more using a $2.5 million federal grant.

Acosta said the project, known as LitSanLeandro, can be looked at as a startup. Through strategic partnerships with members of the community, San Leandro was able to foster a “digital ecosystem.” Using the example of “West Gate,” what was once an unused warehouse has now become a 350,000 square foot industrial/office space wired and rebranded to become a “center of innovation”  that, according to Accosta, is attracting businesses and individuals to the city. 

Acosta encouraged cities looking to “plug in” to “just get started.” In agreement with Hovis, Acosta said cities should have an “open trench policy,” meaning every time a street is dug up, it should be required that conduit be installed. She also advised cities to investigate private entities that would benefit from fiber optics as possible partners in broadband projects. She then reminded leaders to “be fearless,” stating that, “the opportunity for innovation happens when one sees a world of potential that others are blind to.”